SWEDENBORG'S SCRIPTURE INTERPRETATION
Its Validity in the Late Twentieth Century
Friday, July 7, 1992
This is a huge topic, and there is no way I can do it justice. The basic
problem is simple: Swedenborg loved detail. His strategy for convincing the
reader that there was spiritual meaning in Scripture was to show that it
could be found consistently in every word. For present purposes, I think it
is more appropriate to give some background information, then to say
something about the larger context in which his approach to Scripture
occurs, and then to offer a description of his method of Scripture
interpretation in that context. I shall close with some thoughts about the
question of its legitimacy in the present climate of thought. The
particular views may be at odds with traditional Swedenborgianism, but I
believe they represent fairly well the direction in which the evidence
First of all, I find a distinct ambiguity in Swedenborg's theological works
concerning the centrality of Scripture, and I find this ambiguity quite
understandable. We are dealing with a Swede born toward the close of the
seventeenth century and raised in a devout Lutheran household, with a
father who would become a bishop. He was impressed from his earliest years
with the principle of sola Scriptura-that only "the Word," the Old and New
Testaments, conveyed the authoritative voice of God. Luther himself had
depended heavily on this principle in countering the authority of Catholic
tradition and hierarchy, and however much orthodox Lutherans might appeal
to reason, it was still recognized that no doctrine could be given
consideration which did not have a Scriptural basis.
During his university days, Swedenborg encountered and was enchanted by the
new wave of empirical science, and immersed himself in it. He eventually
assumed a position on Sweden's Board of Mines, and wrote copiously and
capably on scientific subjects. When he was in his forties, he began a
massive project which can best be described as an attempt to master the
science of anatomy in order to develop an empirical description of the
soul. As the conviction developed that this huge labor was going to fail in
its primary goal, he began to have paranormal experiences, which in the
year 1745 culminated in his experiencing a call from the Divine to a new
In view of his Lutheran upbringing, it is not surprising that he heard this
"call" as a commission to disclose the deeper meaning of Scripture, that
this is what he set out to do, and that of the twenty-four volumes of the
standard English edition of the theological works he published, fourteen
are exegetical. The first work off the press after his change of vocation
was Arcana Coelestia, a verse-by-verse treatment of Genesis and Exodus that
ran to eight folio volumes in its Latin first edition and extends to twelve
octavo volumes in English. Somewhat later, he published a commentary on the
book of Revelation which occupies two octavo volumes in English
Swedenborgian scholars have paid little attention to clear indications that
Swedenborg began the Arcana Coelestia with the express intent of continuing
it to the end of Scripture.<1> I have elsewhere proposed reasons for his
change of strategy.<2> Here I would mention only a possible factor which is
the other side of the ambiguity I mentioned earlier, namely that his
paranormal experience convinced him that the Divine provided in every
religion sufficient truth for the leading of a heavenly life. As a specific
instance, he describes "Mohammedan heavens," and states that Muhammad's
rigid monotheism was permitted under Providence to prevent the spread of a
Christianity that had degenerated into idolatry.<3>
To place his method of Scripture interpretation in the larger context of
his thought, then, we mey begin by observing that metaphysically, he took
omnipresence very seriously.
It does seem as though the Divine were not the same in one person as in
another-that it were different, for example, in a wise person than in a
simple one, different in an elderly person than in an infant. But this
appearance is deceptive. The person is a recipient, and the recipient or
recipient vessel may vary. A wise person is a recipient of divine love and
divine wisdom more aptly and therefore more fully than a simple person, and
an elderly person who is also wise more than an infant or child. Still, the
Divine is the same in the one as it is in the other . . . .
The Divine is also the same in the largest and smallest of all created
things which are not alive . . . .<4>
Perceiving the Divine, then, was not so much a matter of what one was
looking at as it was a matter of how one was looking. The following
quotation is moderately long, but it will relate very directly to our
discussion of Swedenborg's method of Scripture interpretation.
There are two lights from which we receive light, the light of the world
and the light of heaven. The light of the world comes from the sun; the
light of heaven comes from the Lord. The world's light is for the natural
or outer person, therefore for the matters in that person. Even though it
may not seem as though these matters belong to that light, they
nevertheless do, for nothing can be grasped by the natural person except by
means of the kinds of thing that occur and appear in this subsolar world.
This means they must have some trace of form from the world's light and
shade. All the concepts of time, all the concepts of space, so significant
to the natural person that thinking would be impossible without them,
pertain to this light as well. In contrast, heaven's light is for the
spiritual or inner person. Our more inward mind, the locus of concepts we
call abstract, is in that light. People are unaware of this even though
they refer to their discernment as sight and attribute light to it. This is
because as long as they are involved in worldly and physical concerns they
can perceive only the kinds of thing that are proper to the world's light.
Heaven's light is from the Lord alone: all heaven is in that light: . . .
Between these lights-or between things in heaven's light and things in the
world's light-there is a responsiveness when the outer or natural person is
acting as one with the inner or spiritual person, that is, when the former
is serving the latter. Then the things that happen in the world's light are
portrayals of the kinds of thing that happen in heaven's light.<5>
The word "responsiveness" in the preceding quotation has been chosen in
preference to the more traditional translation "correspondence," in part
because Swedenborg in one instance describes the ear as "corresponding" to
the air and to sound,<6> but in general because the relationship is
consistently portrayed as an active one. The spiritual world, in this view,
is the world of causes, and the material world is the world of effects.<7>
Scripture, or more precisely for Swedenborg, the Word, is a special
instance of this general principle. It is not unique in containing
Each and every thing in nature and its three kingdoms has something active
within it from the spiritual world. If there were not this kind [of force]
within it, absolutely nothing in the natural world would actuate [the
process of] cause and effect, so nothing whatever would result. What is
present in natural things from the spiritual world is called the force
inherent from first creation, but it is the energy [conatus]: when it
ceases, action or motion ceases. This is why the whole visible world is a
theater that portrays the spiritual world.<8>
Like everything else, Scripture is composed in "the language of
correspondences," as a material result of spiritual causes. It is unique in
focusing explicitly on the Lord and his kingdom,<9> and in doing so in
The "language of correspondences," for Swedenborg, is no arcane code, but a
set of causal relationships.
The most universal principle is that the Lord is heaven's sun, and is the
source of all light in the other life. To angels and spirits (or to people
in the other life) nothing whatever of the world's light is visible-the
world's light, which comes from the sun, is nothing but profound darkness
to angels. From heaven's sun or the Lord there comes not only light, but
warmth as well, but the light is spiritual and the warmth is spiritual. To
the eyes of spiritual beings, the light looks like light, but because of
its source it contains intelligence and wisdom. Also, to the senses of
spiritual beings the warmth is perceived as warmth, but because of its
source, there is love within it. So too love is called spiritual warmth and
causes the warmth of human life, and intelligence is called spiritual light
and causes the light of human life. From this universal correspondence flow
the rest. For each and every reality goes back to the good, which is a
matter of love, and the true, which is a matter of intelligence.<11>
He would see an inherent, universal validity in images of light and
darkness, height and depth, nearness and remoteness, nourishment, growth
and decay, marriage, conception, and birth-a kind of broad but invariant
meaning in all the laws of physics and biology.
Through this lens, for example, the creation story becomes an image of the
formation of the human soul, with the gift of light leading first to the
distinction between heavenly and earthly concerns, then the gradual
structuring of the earthly concerns, the formation of primary "heavenly"
allegiances, and the growth of increasingly complex and living affections
and thoughts, until finally there is a person who can truly be regarded as
human, as being in the image and likeness of the Divine.<12>
In most general terms, the spiritual content of Scripture is presented as
de-scribing spiritual processes. On a relatively accessible level, this
process is a kind of history of religion, the story of ups and downs in the
spiritual state of humanity. On a deeper level, it is the story of the
spiritual growth of the human individual; and on the deepest level, it is
the story of the reconciliation of human and Divine in the Christ. In each
case, the first eleven chapters of Genesis (creation through the tower of
Babel) form a kind of prologue, and the plot proper starts with the call of
Abram. The insistence of God and the reluctance of humanity lends itself to
being used as imagery, and it has been particularly appealing to
Swedenborgians that the portrayals of God as tyrannical and vindictive
emerge quite naturally as human projections of our own fear and anger.
It is in fact not difficult to look at the overall story from the call of
Abram to the descent of the Holy City and see distinct phases in it. The
rudimentary plot of struggling to found an earthly kingdom, having that
kingdom collapse, and then having its promise transmuted into "the kingdom
of heaven" in the Gospels can be seen as imaging a general life pattern of
striving for earthly goals, discovering them to be hollow, and beginning to
live for deeper values.
Is this a valid approach to Scripture in the present climate of thought? It
is not easy to give a simple "yes" or a simple "no." As I suggested at the
outset, the most forbidding aspect of Swedenborg's treatment of Scripture
is surely its detail. He himself never gives us the kind of overview I have
just suggested. He starts at the beginning and proceeds verse by verse.
Every event, every person, every place in Genesis and Exodus is assigned a
meaning. Some who have made the effort to master the vocabulary have avowed
themselves convinced by its consistency, though at the risk of making
interpretation a relatively mechanical procedure. The most thorough study
of the principles of interpretation, William Frederic Pendleton's The
Science of Exposition,<13> indicates clearly that Swedenborg is talking
about a rather subtle and complex process. One must pay particular
attention, for example, to "the series"-Swedenborg's way of insisting that
passages are not to be pulled out of context; and the mood of a passage may
be as vital a clue to its meaning as any particular word or phrase.
Especially, Swedenborg insists repeatedly that the attitude of the reader
I have been told by angels that the Lord's Word is a dead letter, but that
while it is being read it is brought to life by the Lord in accord with
each individual's ability. It comes to life according to [one's] life of
thoughtfulness [charitatis] and state of innocence, with immeasurable
If one is reading it as historian, then, the kind of meaning Swedenborg is
primarily concerned with will be irrelevant. If one is reading it to
marshal support for preconceived theological stances, the same will hold
true. There is little question what attitude Swedenborg advocates, or why.
It is recognized that there are many people in the church who are
influenced by the Lord's Word and devote a great deal of labor to reading
it. But there are few who do so with a view to being taught about the
truth. Most of them actually stay within their own dogma and just work to
confirm it from the Word. They seem to be involved in an affection for the
truth, but they are not. The only people who are involved in an affection
for the truth are those who love to be taught about what is true, that is,
to know what is true, and who search the scriptures with this end in view.
No one is involved in this affection except those who are focused on what
is good-that is, on thoughtfulness toward the neighbor, and even more so
those who are in a love for the Lord. For them, the good itself is flowing
into the true and producing the affection, since the Lord is present in
I would urge that there is both wisdom and pertinence to the statement of
the obvious in the first part of this quotation, namely that people come to
Scripture with a variety of purposes. This impinges directly on the
question of the validity of spiritual interpretation, since it forces us to
ask the question, "Valid for what-or for whom?" Within the framework of
Swedenborg's metaphysics, his method of scripture interpretation is not
only valid, but virtually inescapable. The whole physical world is a
theater expressive of the Divine:
The universe in its greatest and smallest parts, in its first and its last
forms, is so full of divine love and divine wisdom that we could say it is
divine love and divine wisdom in image . . . . The created universe is an
image that portrays the God-Man, and . . . his love and wisdom are . . .
presented in the universe in an image.<16>
If we look, we can find the Divine represented everywhere.
The exegetical pluralism that follows from the variety of purposes is
certainly timely. While there is a tendency at present to focus on its
excesses, deconstructionism has left us with the conviction that there can
be no complete or definitive exegesis of any text. Further, social concerns
have led to approaches to Scripture with avowed agendas, such as those of
feminist and liberation theologies, and the field of Biblical scholarship,
once monopolized by historical criticism, is now bewilderingly diverse. The
academic world has its criteria for responsible scholarship, and the clergy
of mainline churches have, by and large, been exposed to these criteria and
impressed by them.
Some recent approaches focus on larger units of text. "Biblical literary
critics of the new breed concur with redaction and canonical critics in
trying to illumine how the entire composition of a biblical writing is to
be read in its integrity."<17> ". . . the text as it stands is the proper
object of study in that it offers a total, self-contained literary meaning
. . . ."<18> This tendency to look at the larger sweep of the story could
be cordial to a Swedenborgian aproach. However, what is sought by such
methods is not so much guidance for a life of thoughtfulness toward the
neighbor as it is an understanding of the ways in which the narrative took
its final form. There is resistance in academic circles to starting from
the assumption that the Bible has some special nature, place, or authority,
though at the same time, there is the recognition that it does have special
authority for many people.
I would suggest that a significant factor in resistance to modes of
interpretation such as Swedenborg's is a rarely articulated belief that God
does not talk in arbitrary codes. The whole notion that the multiple
authors of Scripture could have written a massive allegory without ever
realizing it runs counter to contemporary notions of the nature of the
Divine. It assumes a kind of manipulation of people that may have been
acceptable in biblical or even medieval times, but which has been out of
fashion since the Enlightenment.
As I noted earlier, though, within the context of Swedenborg's own
theology, the relationship between literal text and spiritual message is
not seen as arbitrary. It would certainly be idle to pretend that this
theological context is widely accepted, and there is need of some rationale
for spiritual interpretation, some rationale acceptable on contemporary
grounds. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity this occasion
affords to explore an approach that has occurred to me only recently as
perhaps beginning to bridge the gap between spiritual interpretations and
Most broadly put, it is that the interdependence between observer and
observed means that every statement will say something about both.
Obviously, the Bible reports only a minute fragment of "what actually
happened," and that fragment is (1) selected by what people regarded as
significant and (2) shaped by their notions of what was plausible. It
reflects, that is, human values and human notions of intelligible process.
For example, the pattern of small beginnings, effort in the face of
adversity, and ultimate success is presumed by our experiences of childhood
and maturing. Looking at the complexity of "what actually happened in
history," sorting through accounts given from a variety of perspectives,
narrators will tend to fashion an account that "makes sense" to them, one
therefore that reflects their own experience. Given a text that represents
not a single author but generations, even millennia, of "authors," we might
reasonably expect a measure of universality, a relative transcendence of
Let me offer a contemporary parallel. We are currently being challenged to
rethink the significance of Columbus's voyage of five hundred years ago.
How we understand that event is strongly influenced by our own values-does
it represent the spread of the blessings of civilization, or the triumph of
might over right, or some combination of the two? How we write the story
says a great deal about ourselves. If we look back to a time before the
writing of history was an academic discipline, before scholarly detachment
was a recognized virtue, then the Bible offers us a unique window into the
If it is legitimate to use the Bible to explore fundamental assumptions
about human nature and process, then what Swedenborg offers is at least an
hypothesis about the language by which these assumptions are communicated.
It would be a language of what we might call "organic symbolism" not unlike
the language of Jungian archetypes, and with a similar claim to
universality. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to its acceptance remains its
The basic validity of the whole enterprise remains conditional, though. It
depends on agreement that it is legitimate to look to Scripture for
self-understanding, and also on agreement that some standing be granted to
such criteria as "thoughtfulness toward the neighbor and love for the
Lord." These are not readily accessible to academic evaluation; so I would
hazard the guess that they constitute a significant obstacle to the
consideration of Swedenborg's system in academic circles.
<1>:In the work itself, there are anticipations of treatment of passages in leviticus,
Joshua, and Judges, and the printer's advertisement for an English translation
(sponsored by Swedenborg) of the second volume explicitly describes the work as part of
a treatment of "the whole Bible." Cf. Robert Hindmarsh, Rise and Progress of the New
Jerusalem Church (London: Hodson & Son, 1861), p. 2.
<2>:Cf."A Rationale for Swedenborg's Writing Sequence, 1749-1771," in Robin Larsen,
ed., Emanual Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision (New York: Swedenborg Foundation. 1988),
<3>:Cf. Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), n.
255, also ___________________, True Christian Religion (New York: Swedenborg
Foundation), n. 831. As is customary in Swedenborgian studies, references are not to
pages but to paragraph numbers, which are uniform in all editions. Volumes of the
Standard Edition in English are reprinted by the Swedenborg Foundation as needed, so
precise publication dates have little relevance.
<4>:_______________, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), nn.
<5>:____________________, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), n. 3223.
<6>:ibid., n. 4523.
<7>:ibid., n. 2993.
<8>:ibid., n. 5173:2.
<9>:ibid., n. 155.
<10>:ibid., nn. 3304:3, 4442:e.
<11>:Ibid., n. 3636.
<12>:For a very capable summary by a non-Swedenborgian of Swedenborg's treatment of the
creation story, cf. Henry Corbin, "Herméneutique Spirituelle Comparée (I. Swedenborg -
II. Gnose Ismaélienne)", in Eranos Jahrbuch, 1964, pp. 71-176. The similarities he
points out lend some credence to the notion that the symbolism is not simply arbitrary.
<13>:William Frederic Pendelton, The Science of Exposition (Bryn Athyn: Academy of the
New Church, 1915).
<14>:Ibid., n. 1776.
<15>:Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), n.
<16>:____________________, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), n.
<17>:Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1985), p. 24.
<18>:ibid., p. 22.